Compassionate self-care is a path of kindness and respect for ourselves. It offers a way of relating to our internal experience which is not pushed, coerced, or manipulated. In this path there are no categorical labels, no demands, no success or failure. There isn’t anything to achieve, get to, or make. No ideal state of consciousness is proposed which is any better than the one we find ourselves in right now. We allow ourselves to feel just what we are feeling, to breathe consciously, and to stay attentive to the body. We don’t let ourselves become confused by thoughts which suggest to us what our feelings mean.
We notice the breathing and the rhythm of the body as we breathe. We allow the attention to be with the breathing. We don’t think about the breathing; we simply notice it sensuously and aesthetically. As we breathe, as the body moves in this natural rhythm, we let ourselves relax. If some part of the body is tense and won’t relax in a spontaneous way, we care for the tension as it is — making no demand upon it.
Breathing affects the whole body, even though the most obvious experience of it takes place in the upper front of the trunk. It is an integrated movement of the human form. If we had to believe in breathing in order for it to work, we would find ourselves in constant confusion. Breathing is a spontaneous organic movement. It doesn’t require a belief system to uphold it. We don’t have to consciously organize the process, nor do we have to exert our will. We need only allow and accept.
Breathing is a gift to the body and to the being in and around the body. We don’t have to earn our life breath; it is given to us freely.
What we take into ourselves as we breathe is invisible and yet through the nourishment it brings, we are sustained. The life experiences that we share here are possible only because of an invisible substance that we take into ourselves while we breathe. An unseen nourishment quietly upholds our lives.
Breathing is a cycle in which something is received and something is given in return. After we have been nourished, we offer nourishment to other life forms. Those life forms take in what we give to them and return something to us. The process of giving and receiving goes on and on and on, an ecology of gifts.
The breath is the principal metaphor for the process of compassionate self-care because it represents the truth of relationship, ecology, spirituality, devotion, and prayer. We are not independent. We are interdependent. Our needs are great, and can be met only by participation in the cosmic cycle of breathing and all that it means. We live in a breathing body on a breathing earth in a breathing universe. Nothing is free from this great pulsation.
We may notice that if we begin to focus our thoughts on the breathing, it becomes subtly disrupted. It begins to lose its soft and spontaneous cadence. Thought is not rhythmic in the way our breathing is; it doesn’t have the same natural flow. Routine thinking is somewhat chaotic and divorced from the rhythms of the body. Our thinking rests on top of a rhythm, but is not a rhythm in and of itself. Breathing is simple, like waves. There are ascensions, descensions, and silent gaps between. Compassionate self-care is an acknowledgment and a celebration of the breath.
The inner work of compassionate self-care involves distinguishing between rhythmic and arrhythmic processes. Through this work, we return our life to the great rhythms of giving and receiving and respectfully let go of that which is arrhythmic. Breathing is a simple rhythm. The heart beats in another rhythm. The blood moves through the veins in yet another rhythm. The nervous system is filled with energetic pulsations. As we move deeper and deeper into the processes of the body, we find an array of rhythms and movements that are gifts to us. The moment one of the many rhythms of our life is disrupted, we can feel it. We become less clear, less balanced, and less grounded.
Emotional healing does not depend on the process of figuring something out. It does not depend on conceptual understanding, but rather on a return of the feeling life to a natural biological rhythm. Emotional healing involves allowing the feelings to enter into the basic pulsations of the body. This is accomplished, in part, by separating those feelings from the arrhythmic clutch of thought.
The feeling life is not a conceptual experience. Feelings are not ideas, but subtle physical experiences. They take place in the body. They are not inherently meaningful in the way they seem to be when we apply our thoughts and beliefs to them. Feelings are part of the rhythm, the giving and receiving, the nourishment, and the interdependent ecology of our experience here.
We often misunderstand our feelings. We think that some of them are weak and some strong, some are good and some bad, some right and some wrong. Such a relationship to our feelings represents an overlay of arrhythmic thought onto the intimate rhythms of our bodily experience.
When we allow ourselves to turn toward our feelings at the bodily level, we can discover a core of warm nourishment there. Even in our anger, our guilt, our confusion, our loneliness, even in the depths of despair, we can find something that we truly want — a sustaining force which we can receive and then give in return.
Feelings can be recognized as a movement of energy on a subtle level. Like breathing, the beating of the heart, and the movement of blood in the veins, feelings are not owned by us. They are part of the stream which sustains and uplifts this mysterious human form.
The process of self-care reveals experientially that feelings are energy, rhythmic movements of energy in the body. They are like tones that resonate from subtle regions of the human form. These feeling tones have become disrupted by the ways we have been taught to fight against them, deny them, dishonor them, and obstruct them.
We are in this body, this exotic life form, on this puzzling planet, assuming that we understand what the consciously felt energetic fluctuations called feelings actually mean. Mystery is the predominant quality of our human experience. We don’t know very much. We can’t know very much and yet there is so much here, so much to receive and so much to give.
We turn our attention to the body so that we may take care of it and honor it. The human body offers us immense evolutionary possibilities. All the scriptures and spiritual teachings which have been passed from generation to generation have revealed, in one way or another, that it is an honor to be a human being — to have this body — even though there are times when the suffering and difficulties are great.
In order to discover the sacred possibility of our human embodiment, we must learn how to turn to ourselves and be with our experience in a way that truly honors our life here. This requires learning how to honor and bring dignity to each aspect of our life. We must learn what it means to attend to ourselves with absolute respect, even though we don’t really understand what we are, who we are, or where we are going.
The conditioned mind is making constant demands for closure and conceptual understanding. It lobs labels and names at our delicate experience, many of which suggest that there is something wrong, that we are undignified, ugly, or weak in various areas of our life. The path of compassionate self-care offers an antidote to the mind’s demands. Its fundamental principle reveals that there is nothing wrong, shameful, dark, or ugly about human life. A string of conflicted and limiting constructs, beliefs, and ideas has so dominated our awareness that it seems as if those ideas are real and nothing else exists. If we can dislodge and dismantle those disguised thought patterns, we can return our attention to the beauty and innocence of our life here.
We honor the body because it is more than what it looks like. This body is not simply the physical appearance that we can see and touch. Within the body and surrounding it, there is an energetic field which cannot usually be seen by the naked eye. The visible body is like the hub of a wheel. From its core there are spokes which extend in every direction. These spokes are a shimmering illumination, an invisible radiance.
The radiance surrounding the body is the subtle aspect of our visible form. As the body moves with each inhalation and exhalation, something more than air is taken into us, something deep and subtle, which we might call energy or life current. We not only breathe air and ingest food; we also take energies into ourselves, and by these energies we are fed. We do not live by bread alone. Something deep, subtle, and invisible nurtures and nourishes us, making it possible to serve and to give.
The body is like a thread or a strand which has a series of unseen openings at different points along its surface. These openings pulsate the way a diaphragm does when we breathe. During those pulsations a sacred offering is made to us, and a previous offering is returned. Energies are received and energies are given back again.
The whole body breathes — not just the lungs or the diaphragm. The entire body breathes at many different levels, in different places, and in different ways through openings along the spiraling thread of the human form. The knowledge of these openings and their purpose has been revealed in various occult traditions.
The great and central opening of the human body is located in the domain of the heart. The front of the body — the heart and the area around the heart — is a portal, a subtle passageway which is responsible for our feeling life. It is through this opening that we experience courage, inspiration, love, and the creative act itself.
Human beings consciously encounter life in the vertical position. We stand upright and the front of our body directly greets the world. Our relationship to form and phenomena does not arise only from the sensory organs. We are not just eyes and nose and mouth. We are an exotic life form, mobile on this earth, facing each other and the world through the front of the body and the delicate opening which dwells there.
Our feelings are frontal experiences. This becomes clearer and clearer as we turn our attention gently toward the body and allow ourselves to breathe and to feel in an easy way.
Turning the attention to the body is the beginning of the process of compassionate self-care. We allow whatever feeling experience we are having there to become part of the rhythms of the body. We don’t make demands on our feelings. We simply give them the space they need. We attend, allow, and respect. This is self-care.
Feelings are energies which are given to the body and then consciously experienced. They are not ours any more than the air we breathe is ours. We cannot control them. We can only say yes and let the mind’s grip on them disappear. Feelings are part of the rhythmic flow, the stream of life. Compassionate self-care is a way of participating in that flow respectfully and openly.
Thoughts about feelings are a conditioned response to something we do not understand. The actuality of the feeling cannot be defined. It can only be received and allowed. We breathe, we feel, and we allow. How much time is spent each day arguing with this organic process? How much time is spent trying to force back and push away something that we think is not right about ourselves? How much time is lost disrespecting the sacred presence which inhabits and radiates from the physical form because we misunderstand the beautiful mystery of our existence here?
If, for instance, we have become caught in fear, we might, instead of battling the thoughts and trying to be brave in some manipulative way, turn our attention toward the physical side of that fear and stay steady with it — breathing and allowing. If we feel clear and open, we do exactly the same — giving permission to whatever way the energetic current seems to be expressing itself in the body. We gently disengage from the mind’s demands, labels, and illusory assertions about what it all means.
The feeling life is not a conceptual experience. Feelings are not ideas, but subtle physical experiences. They take place in the body.
No matter how difficult the circumstances in our life seem to be or how tormented and confusing our emotions appear, we turn the attention toward our body in a direct way and breathe. It is safe to do this because at the core of every emotional experience is an energetic wave, a gift of life that is being misinterpreted by the mind.
The capacity of the conditioned mind to hate the present is very great. It suggests that life would be better if we were different from how we are now or that some state exists which is superior to the one we find ourselves in at this moment. It belittles and berates, compares and justifies. We should never underestimate the degree to which the mind holds on to its beliefs in wrongness and shame.
The way to overcome the counterforce of self-hate is to bless and respect our own experience. This self-care work is based on the principle of nonresistance, ahimsa. We don’t fight our experience. We don’t commit violence against the sacred presence of life as it has manifested within us.
Our day-to-day experience doesn’t have to be a battle, an argument, or a war. We turn toward our feeling life, offering it all the space it needs. We offer rhythm and space to every experience — good, bad, or indifferent. We return our consciousness to the rhythms of the body and allow ourselves to breathe.
As vertical beings, our very form allows us to face the world in an open and vulnerable way. We not only have eyes to see, ears to hear, skin to touch, mouth and tongue to taste, nose to smell; we also have the frontal opening, the frontal membrane, so that we can receive the energetic nourishment which pours toward us all the time.
Our self-hate has forced us in various ways to clamp down on the frontal membrane, to misuse and even abuse the portal to love. A kind of energetic congestion has developed within because of this abuse. Instead of experiencing the simple rhythmic movement of the feeling life, we tend to experience ourselves as clogged, held back. Something doesn’t flow openly and won’t expand comfortably. Our feeling life is sometimes a little heavy.
That heaviness isn’t about issues and concerns from the past. It comes as a result of turning the body against the nourishment which is being given to it all the time and from a misunderstanding of the possibilities at hand. We have closed down on a flow and interrupted its rhythm. Compassionate self-care breaks up this heaviness through a restoration of our conscious relationship to the natural cadence of body and breath.
When we turn our attention to the heart and locate our conscious identity there, we begin to understand and feel gratitude for the very interdependence that we so often try to reject. Everything is given to us. Our purpose is to receive, transform, and give back. Such is the beautiful possibility of the frontal membrane, the vertical position, and the radiant field in which our body lives.
The arms, the legs, the neck, and the head are like spokes which extend from the trunk of the body, the hub. Yet we have come to live as if one of the spokes sits in the center itself. The head is not the hub; it is an ascending spoke. The front of the center of the body is the hub. It is from here that love, courage, inspiration, and creativity emerge. The spokes are expressive instruments, not the core itself.
Every human body has unique qualities. Each of us takes in, transforms, and gives back energy in a distinct way. Each of us is a particular individualized pulsation of life current, a resonating tone, and not merely a series of memories, beliefs, and ideas. We each bear a unique way of expressing the energies we receive.
The deeper purpose of compassionate self-care is to begin a process in which we heal those parts of the radiant body and the frontal membrane which are congested, inflamed, contracted, and in pain, so that we can participate more fully in the expression of our unique possibilities.
Attention is conscious space. It is not thought. When we bring our attention to any part of the body, we are offering that part a special kind of spaciousness. When we bring our attention to our feelings, no matter how difficult they may seem to be, we are giving them a conscious space in which to expand and transform themselves organically.
When we attend to a feeling and allow that feeling to be integrated into the movement of the body as it breathes, then the feeling has been given rhythm. By bringing the breathing and the attention to a feeling, we are providing the feeling with rhythm and space so that the sense of heaviness and density can unfold into something else.
We notice the breathing and the beating of the heart. We notice sensuously how the breathing affects the front of the body. We allow the attention to be with the front of the body and the palms of the hands at the same moment. We now allow the attention to encompass the face and the forehead without losing our embrace of the front of the body and the palms of the hands.
We may notice as we attend to the body in this way that the space between the hands, the head, and the heart is not a mere vacancy. It is not emptiness. What we call space, especially in the region close to the physical form, is more like a vibration than a stillness — or perhaps a vibration within a stillness.
There is no vacuum. The pulse of life is everywhere. An energetic radiance unites us all. As we settle into ourselves, we may begin to feel something of that radiance, that living pulse.
The body is a dense and visible aspect of a unified field which is always being fed by that which created it. It can’t be separated from the field in which it lives. It can only be incorrectly perceived as separate. That which sustains us is given as a gift by that which created us. We breathe and allow and take in. The whole body prays in this way. The whole body accepts. It accepts our loneliness, our grief, our anger, our pain, our bounty, our abundance, and our love.
What difference does it make what we’ve told ourselves all these years? What difference does it make how we’ve characterized ourselves, what we’ve believed about who we are? Here is a moment in which we can transcend all our cruel and distorted beliefs. Turning with care to our own life, coming to the heart, allows us to begin outshining those arbitrary ideas which have confined us for so long.
The prayer of the breath, the prayer of the heart, is the prayer of the gracious yes. The body in gratitude accepts a deep and enduring nourishment. If we hurt, then we allow that hurt to be there. We give it rhythm, space, and conscious care. This is how we bless that which blesses us. This is how we give up regrets and say yes to what is. We give up the stranglehold, the tension, the tight regrets about ourselves or the life we have led. We give up the past, in this respect, and be as we are in the mysterious simplicity of our existence here.
There are times when we hold on to something or someone who has hurt us or turned their back in some way. The memory of such an event speaks of the pain we still feel. Through our self-care work, we respect all of that. It is not wrong or bad to resent. We don’t dishonor it because it is there. Instead, we begin to turn toward our hurt in a slightly different way than we have before. We locate the pain in the body. We find the wound in a physical way and then stay with it openly.
We know what we have said to ourselves and others about our resentments and our hurts. We know what the story is. We have run it through the mind over and over again. And this is all right. But now instead, even for just a moment or two, we turn with care toward ourselves so that we may attend to the wound — not to the story about how the wound came to be there. We enter our experience directly.
It is not wrong to hurt. The hurt is an opening, a door. It is not a cause for shame or a reminder of our ugliness. It is simply a wounded passageway in a radiant space. And healing does not require harsh words, tension, humiliation, or the stinging sneers of regret. It requires only that we attend to it with care.
Our hurt is a wound in love’s body. And even though we have been taught to turn away from that which hurts — to run, to make fun of ourselves, to break it, to get rid of it — none of that really works. Pain can’t be transformed through self-hate.
Our life is a passageway, an enigmatic gap between two unknowns, birth and death. We don’t know what lies on either side. We don’t know what anything means. But all of us in one way or another are confronted with a stark choice: whether to bless this life or attempt to break it; whether to trust the mystery or to call it names and hate it; whether to be with our experience or to be against it.
We might look at the ocean on a sunny day and notice the wind, the waves, and the whitecaps. Even though we know that each wave, each ripple, is unique, we may also be aware that the waves and all their movements are simple modulations of one great stillness. Waves appear and disappear in rhythmic fluctuations, but in the end, the waves and the ocean are the same. Our individuality, our unique qualities, are like waves — one thing appearing in different ways. From the sea we come, in the sea we live, and to the sea we must return.
Self-care means that we offer the space of our attention and the rhythm of our breath to every feeling that we perceive. We are feeling beings. We are rhythmic beings. We are beings who dwell in spaciousness. And in this human body, we are also beings of warmth. The body is warm. Warmth and space and rhythm permeate our life here. When we fight against our feelings by applying the arrhythmic vehicle of thought, attempting to hold them back, they do not appear to be warm; they seem cold, or neutral at best.
As we open to our feelings and breathe with them, we can begin to discover the warmth which lies within. Even those feelings we’ve labeled as dark and difficult are like hardened seeds with a warm and nourishing core. Deep inside every feeling is warmth. Warm energies meet the warm body and are conducted through warmth toward expression and return.
We should never underestimate the degree to which the mind holds on to its beliefs in wrongness.
We can picture our body like a single flame emerging from a great fire. All of our feelings are part of that fire. Everything we feel is holy and innocent because everything we feel is just a fluctuation in the one field. All the regrets, the concerns about the past, the judgments on the present are images in the mind. We sometimes lose ourselves there. But the fiery force of love continues to burn everywhere.
When we sit with ourselves, consciously breathing and allowing the feelings to flow, we enter into a moment in which the interplay of all the forces that constitute our everyday life stop. In this moment, we find a touch of grace, outside of time and place. Our choices, our plans, our beliefs and ideas are simply laid aside. We sit, breathe, and wait.
It’s true that he hurt us, she left us. It’s true that he or she died. It’s true that we did not live up to someone’s expectations for us or they did not live up to ours. It’s true, perhaps, that we are ill or that the bank account is not filled in the way we want it to be. But all that can subside for a moment when we come back to the hurt, if hurt is there. We return our attention to the breath to find the space at the source of all things. Into this space we go, and from this space we return. That is what it means to be born again. It’s not what we believe. It’s not what scripture we read. It’s not the moral code we subscribe to. It’s the washing we receive as we stay with the body and breathe, as we enter into the silence so that we may cast off the old clothes — the resentments, the regrets, the self-hate — and sit for a while in the mystery. Then we return again, cleansed.
“Compassionate Self-Care” is a talk given by Stephen R. Schwartz during a recent gathering in Valley Cottage, New York.
The Prayer Of The Body: The Work Of Stephen R. Schwartz
By Sy Safransky
By Sy Safransky